The “Difficulty Paper” in Advancing Critical Reading & Thinking: What & Why & How

9 Jun

After one of my students reported throwing a book across the room…

…the “Difficulty Paper” became one of my favourite assignments in whatever undergraduate – and often graduate – course I’m teaching.  The task that students engage can be stated simply, as in what I recall from posing the assignment a first time:

Before you feel like throwing the reading for today across the room when the text you’re reading can’t be made to make sense, take the time and space of compose a one-pager to tell me about the difficulties you’re having with the text – with simply reading the text overall or specific sections and passages.  Or: In a short paper talk back to the text, telling the author what is difficult for you in working your way through the reading for today. 

What might be difficult for students in a particular text?  Perhaps the specific text comes in the form of a new genre – for everyone in the course, for students aligned with various disciplines represented in the class, or presents to specific students a new language – specialised language, regional vernacular, detailed images (charts, figures, photos, tables, art pieces), theoretical ideas articulated in both academese and in the reader’s third language.  Students who can honestly confront a textual difficulty through this assignment are given permission, parameters and resources for doing the work of building an understanding of a text, for talking openly about the work done, and for making use of constructivist learning to build ah Aha! understanding.

What might be difficult may also include first encounter with disciplinary rhetorical conventions, limited familiarity with the generations of scholars behind the specific author’s thinking, conflicting and/or differently culturally contexted understandings of the problems probed or perspectives adopted by a text’s author.  Students working through difficulties that require perspective taking, probing and building of background knowledge, bridging of emotion and intellect, these are the students who emerge from difficult thinking work to build new knowledge.

Sometimes I assign a Difficulty Paper – or create group-based Difficulties Conversations – across the opening weeks of a course in order to make explicit that it is good to engage in conversation about various cognitive, affective and psychomotor aspects of learning that are difficult.  Making these discussions part of the normalised reflective and public classroom discourse helps sustain students in the hard work of learning. 

Sometimes – as with this term – I save it for the end of the course in order to learn with students which about concepts and texts they have wrestled with during the term.  In two short writings, I can ask students to speak about where (and through what maneuvers) they have emerged as “winners” in the wrangling to understand, and where they are still doing the work of text-wrestling.  These become the grounds for a fruitful closing discussion.

The post that follows addresses the Difficulty Paper as a practice via the words of Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori, who first introduced the paper and pedagogy to writing instructors, and of Amy Haddad, who brought the concepts to clinical classrooms as part of science writing and pedagogy.

I.  The Basic “Difficulty Paper” – The What & Why, with Ideas about How to Incorporate as Individual Writing Assignment

The “Difficulty Paper” is an assignment that students must complete and hand in before we as a class begin discussing a new text. This is how it reads in Rizzi Salvatori’s basic handout:

You can expect to write regularly in this course. In preparation for class discussions and writing assignments, you will write short (1/2/ to 1 page) “difficulty papers”: These are paper in which you identify and begin to hypothesize the reasons for any possible difficulty you might be experiencing as you read a ____ (poem, play, essay, research article). Each week, you will write a difficulty paper on one of the assigned texts. Each week, I will select one or two of these “difficulty papers” as unusual or representative examples of the readings you produce. I will distribute copies and use them to ground our discussions. My goal, in doing so, is to move all of use from judging a difficulty as a reader’s inability to understand a text to discerning in that difficulty a reader’s incipient awareness of the particular “demands” imposed by the language, structure, style, context of a text.

As faculty blogger Michael Arnzen describes it, The Difficulty Paper

comes out of the idea that by grappling with intimidating readings, students can master their anxieties about (and become more confident reading) academic texts, and that – through writing out their thoughts (e.g., taking a metacognitive approach) – they can identify what they already know and what they still need to find out.

This “text-wrestling” – a Peter Elbow phrase that I love – launches students into messing around in and pouncing on difficult readings to make sense of it, providing opportunities for that meta-cognitive struggle-to-learn-how-to-embrace difficult discourse. Given the chance to “wrestle” my students typically dig in to tell me what was difficult, why and where the text stood in the way, when and how their own need to re-learn or unlearn redirected the learning process. Arnzen likens Difficulty Papers to the creation of a transcript of an individual’s critical reading thought process. Yup. 

More Signs 005In Rizzi Salvatori’s handout accompanying the description at a conference presentation and elsewhere, she further notes this about the assignment:

  • The function of this assignment is to help students begin to reflect on how they read, and why, and on the kind of understanding their ways of reading can produce.
  • It can help students shape a position from which to speak in class, and to engage in the thoughts of others.
  • It can help students to foreground, to begin to analyze, and to assess the intricate moves they must make as readers who transact and negotiate with a text.
  • “Students ‘bump into’ linguistic, structural, or factual elements that a reader must engage in order to come to an understanding of a text” – and in sharing this, “they were giving me, potentially, an interpretation of the text.”

Naming – acknowledging, identifying, and working around – difficulties is, indeed, a beginning place in critical reading and interpretation. For novice readers, whether those new to college generally, or to a discipline specifically, the acts of writing and speaking about the difficulties opens opportunities for students to “puzzle” and reflect on their difficult reading, connecting, extending, thinking and interpreting experiences. 

For teachers, the benefits of Difficulty Paper revolve around transparency: we can learn where and how and why students struggle with difficult texts; we can clarify the roles of engagement with difficult texts in building critical thinking skills and in building disciplinary knowledge; and we can openly work through learning puzzles of learning with students.

As students “talk back” to a text by examining “Why is this text difficult?” they begin to open up a text, to create new understandings by becoming textual detectives moving into “insider” roles in making meaning of and from what they read.

Left without an invitation to interrogate difficulties, students tend to “talk back” to themselves, asking “Why can’t I understand this?” which too often moves students to settle for surface-level comprehension because “I can’t learn this.” Teachers can undo the negative self talk by incorporating these difficulties into the everyday discussion of disciplinary publications and knowledge making, normalizing meta-cognition and the work of learning new ideas.

Assignments wrapped around difficult text need to engage students in the work of puzzling, by providing space and permission for naming stuck places as initial steps in the process of working through the confusion. Solving texts – like puzzles, John McMillan points out – requires close attention in the process of figuring out what fits, where patterns emerge, how a series of pieces link to one another: Both require a person’s full attention – developing habits of imagination and innovation, refining skills and strategies.

Rizzo Salvatori’s Difficulty Paper as an individual assignment – as in the description included below – easily adapts across courses; prompts can engage students in sorting difficulties ahead of a class as part of (1) discussion preparation for a first or new or now-more-difficult discipline-specific article, (2) drafting talking points in preparation for a jigsaw reading discussion, (3) launching and maintaining an online text-based discussion, and (4) working through analysis involving visual and virtual texts.

salvatoris basic assignment

II. Difficulty Paper: Ideas about How to Develop as a Small Group Assignment

The Difficulty Paper works brilliantly as a writing assignment for groups needing to engage in collaborative reflection, thinking and analysis ahead of a larger discussion or writing task. Amy Haddad sets this out in the context of a clinical course simulation students have participated in ahead of gathering together. The conversation begins with viewing a videotape of students in the simulated case: 

The Assignment:


The Analysis:


III. Resources



3 Responses to “The “Difficulty Paper” in Advancing Critical Reading & Thinking: What & Why & How”

  1. Andre Stephani, MLS 11 January 2016 at 2:16 pm #

    Hello, I once heard of a simple technique to use when we find our selves confused about what we are reading, Go back in the text to a place we felt good about what we were reading and move ahead, looking for a word or words we don’t understand. Stop, and look up the word, making sure we understand it. Resume reading, repeating this process as often as needed. This may be an over-simplification of the issue. However, I have found the technique to be useful when I slip into that foggy zone of no comprehension, and ask myself, “What the heck did I just read?”

    • IleneDawn 11 January 2016 at 5:08 pm #

      Yes. This is an especially helpful process as a follow up to that first read through of a reading with its two aims of getting the big picture, and tracking places – of connection, confusion, or concern – to come back to in the follow up closer reading.

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